What is space? What is time?

If you are looking for a modern physicist’s take on the very best answers to those two questions, and all of the related mysteries they stir up, check out Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos. Briane Greene's Fabric of the Cosmos
Greene has that rare and shining combination of a precise mathematical mind (that can earn an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a doctorate from Oxford, and teach math and physics at such universities as Cornell and Columbia,) along with the infectious enthusiasm of your 8-year old nephew when he is showing you his latest bug collection, or some new fact of astronomy he has just learned.

With Section headings like “I. Reality’s Arena,” “II. Time and Experience,” “III. Spacetime and Cosmology,” “V. Reality and Imagination,” Greene demonstrates his commitment not only to covering the most relevant and central issues in the modern physical sciences, but to doing so in an engaging and interesting way, by disdaining to discuss anything too mathematically sticky, and persistantly wooing the non-specialist.

Chapters 1-3 are a well-paced recapitulation of the question-hypothesis-antithesis-synthesis process regarding questions about space. Is space an entity of itself, or is it merely a name we use to describe the fact that things are spatially separated from each other? Newton says space exists, independantly and absolutely. Leibniz says it does not; space without things in it is meaningless. Ernst Mach agrees, with qualification. Einstein shows up and discovers that space and time are so inextricably entagled that it is difficult to tell them apart. In fact, they are not apart. “They” are one thing: spacetime. Greene fully explores what this discovery might mean for space, gravity, light, and time.

In Chapter 1 he also gives an interesting take on how the scientific (and, I would call it, dialectical) process works, tipping his hand with regard to the answer of “Why does it even matter?” He responsibly considers the possibility that the “scientific enterprise” is just another futile circle, like the curse of Sisyphus. He provides a passionate rejoinder against this anology, assuring himself and readers that progress is indeed beinge made, and calling us to fight forward!

Chapters 5-7 are a similary robust and interesting romp through the oldest and latest theories about time, with special attention given to Einstein and the satisfying solutions he presented, along with the new problems he posed.

Chapters 8-11 (on “Origins & Cosmology”) are perhaps the least compelling. His account of the origion of the world is thoroughly and dogmatically Naturalistic. I would guess that it is the relative laxity of scientists subject to this intellectual stronghold that lets them produce dramatically less rigourous arguments and theories, and encourages them to give these theories inordinate consideration.

Chapters 12 and 13 launch us into the bewildering and fascinating world of String Theory (or Superstring Theory) and its latest mutation, M-Theory. Greene very excited about the possibilities of String Theory, and where the conversation might be headed, and he guides us through these possibilities with kindness and competence. For someone interested in string theory at an introductory level, flipping through these chapters is the ideal starting point.

Chapters 14-16, as the name (Reality & Imagination) might suggest, are such stuff as science fiction dreams are made of. These chapters are somewhat less academic and understandibly less focused ponderings on related issues about space and time. For instance, there is a chapter-long foray into issues of time travel… Whether or not it will ever be possible to travel into the past, what methods are the most promising, etc. He concludes with educated musings on the future of scientific inquiry in general and string/M-theory in particular, successfully concluding this informative and enjoyable read.

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

10 Comments

  1. Keith,

    A very effective review. It did what reviews are supposed to do (and what mine mostly fail at!): persuade me that I should read the book! Kudos!

    Reply

  2. I realized something about reviews, today: Reviews are tricky, because there are two main options, thumbs up or thumbs down, but there are a potentially infinite number of other “signs” to assign to a book.

    If you give it a thumbs down, you are probably saying its a bad book and no one should bother reading it.

    If you give it a thumbs up, it is then proper to give a “Read this if…” The completion of that sentence could be any number of a potentially infinite pool of attributes or people.

    There are millions of good books that I will never get to, because they are not good AND particularly relevant to me and my areas of study.

    I tried to give a “thumbs up” and “read this if you want to know about superstring theory/M-theory, if you like intro-level physics, if you think Brian Greene sounds interesting.” Otherwise, it is just another well-written book you may not ever get to.

    Reply

  3. Keith,

    Has your reflection on Greene’s book has given you any insight into the God/time/change problem I brought up a couple days ago?

    Reply

  4. Keith,

    By the way, I hope you rock the GRE today!

    Reply

  5. And I hope you rock the CASBA!!

    YEAAAAH!!!

    Reply

  6. I’d recommend Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages as well for a view of where modern physics is going in the last 10 years.

    Reply

  7. I took the GRE! It went well. Many thanks to the Kaplan book and the many friends (and teachers) who I polled about strategies for success. My score was as predicted by diagnostic tests: I got a 590 Quantitative and a 670 Verbal (50th and 94th percentile, respectively). I’ll have to wait a couple of weeks for feedback on the Analytical Writing… I felt pretty good about it; this blog has surely been a crucial practice-ground! Thanks for the encouragement and advice, guys.

    Reply

  8. makelovehappen March 9, 2006 at 1:45 am

    Congratulations on the GREs. I need to take them soon.

    I am doubtful Mr. Greene “gets” Sisyphus. The mythical scoundrel was given the task of rolling a boulder up a hill for all eternity. Presumably the meaninglessness of the situation is that nothing changes. For there to be “progress” something has to change.

    For every time Mr. Greene (passionately) assures us science is making changes, Sisyphus is right there with Solomon saying, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Even if there could be a change that would suddenly give our lives “meaning”, would it mean our lives were meaningless before that change? And if so, what does it mean (if anything) to live in the moment?

    Reply

  9. “I am doubtful Mr. Greene “gets” Sisyphus. The mythical scoundrel was given the task of rolling a boulder up a hill for all eternity. Presumably the meaninglessness of the situation is that nothing changes.”

    I do not mean to insult Greene by poorly replicating his take on Sisyphus. His point was that science does make progress, and insofar as this is true, it is not like Sisyphus.

    His definition of “progress” was interesting to me, but it did leave me a bit doubtful. Is it worth it?

    I do not know what gives our lives meaning, but I cannot seem to shake the feeling that they are meaningful. Greene seems to have the same feeling. We come up with this or that explanation, but in the end perhaps it is only a vague, inarticulate intuition that keeps us from committing suicide.

    Greene also quotes Albert Camus as saying, “There is only one philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Whether the world has three dimensions or the mind nine or twelve categories comes afterward.”

    Makelovehappen, what do you think it means to live in the moment?

    Reply

  10. Keith-

    I like your Socratic style, Keith. In a world where commercials, politicians, and philosophers claim to “know” how to find meaning in life (“know” like it could be authoritatively documented in an Encyclopedia), you are honest enough to say you don’t know what gives our lives meaning. I like that.

    I was also wondering if Greene was making the connection to Camus. If he was just saying science can do certain things (like quantum mechanics and nano-technology) that it couldn’t do a while ago, then, okay, yes, science is making progress (seeing new things). But will this keep me from wanting to kill myself? Or is it more likely that it will only succeed in creating enough interesting gimmicks that I won’t ask myself that question? If science is making that kind of progress, then surely it’s okay to want to stay in a world without love.

    In the scientific process a theory is hypothesized, controlled, tested, generalized, and then made into something “meaningful”. So the ends and the means are totally separate, and this is the boast of science.

    The ends are dubious because the theories must be confirmed and this involves carefully (and endlessly) retesting and verifying. Unlike a mortal life which comes to an end, science is never complete! Just as the eye never has enough of “seeing” so too, the moment science gains complete assurance is infinitely far in the future.

    Living in the moment is simply having a meaning in one’s life which is not delayed to an unspecified time in the future. Which is hardly a promise science can make.

    Unlike science, love brings eternity (which is already complete) into the “right now” and is present in an eternal moment. In love the ends and the means are simultaneously and ineffably united in a very strange and mysterious way. Nothing is delayed, it is all at once and yet it lasts forever.

    Reply

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